Archive for the ‘Space News’ Category

Life in Space – NASA Life Sciences Research During the Late Twentieth Century by Maura Phillips Mackowski, University of Florida Press (May 2022); 375 pages; Hardcover: $35.00.

This well-researched, well-written, and meticulously documented account of a somewhat concealed side of NASA offers a revealing look into the agency’s research in the space life sciences – and opportunities unfulfilled. 

The book consists of 10 chapters, such as “Working in the Space Environment,” “Radiation and the Science of Risk Reduction,” “Design and Redesign: The Many Space Stations of NASA,” and “The Vision for Space Exploration.” There is also an extensive and in-valuable notes/reference section that is priceless.

In the introduction, the author says upfront: “Space life sciences had to struggle for an acknowledged and appreciated place at the Agency’s table, principally because NASA was formed purposely as an evolution of a predecessor engineering research agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).”

Mackowski has written a bold story about NASA’s ambitious space life science program, but more importantly, why it is essential if dreams of lunar outposts and planting footprints on Mars are to become historical “done that” checkmarks in the future.

NASA’s space shuttle program brought with it a more diverse astronaut corps – gender, age, and nationalities. “This created a broader pool of human test subjects, making space research more applicable to Earth medicine. It also presented new challenges as the Agency worked to equip and maintain flight crews and manage programs carrying out increasingly ambitious research,” Mackowski writes.

The reader will find new insight into one opportunity lost and still lost-in-space – a high-tech centrifuge and work on artificial gravity. Keeping astronauts healthy, the author explains, meant re-looks into old ideas of artificial gravity, based on decades of learning about the medical impacts of microgravity.

A fascinating read is available on details dealing with troublesome radiation and risk reduction steps. “Fortunately for NASA’s life sciences budget, radiation was a danger no one knew much about but everyone wanted to understand,” the author points out.

This book is a significant volume of history, but also underscores what the future holds in carrying out productive life science research and what investigations are missing-in-action.

The volume builds upon the excellent quality of Mackowski’s research and writing in the past. She is a research historian based in Arizona and author of Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight.

In publicizing this work, take note of a comment from John B. Charles, retired chief scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program: “Mackowski’s research is exhaustive, her analysis is spot-on, and her conclusions give us pause as we consider when and if to send our fellow humans deeper into space on longer missions with greater risk and less support from Mission Control than ever before.”

For more information on this book, go to:

Artist impression of BepiColombo flying by Mercury. The spacecraft makes nine gravity assist maneuvers (one of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury) before entering orbit around Mercury in 2025.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The BepiColombo mission is gearing up for its second close flyby of Mercury on June 23.

For this second of six such flybys, BepiColombo needs to pass Mercury at a distance of just 124 miles (200 kilometers) from its surface. These gravitational flybys require extremely precise deep-space navigation work.

Joint mission

BepiColombo is a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The spacecraft is entering Mercury orbit in late 2025 and was launched back in October 2018.

Artist’s impression of the BepiColombo spacecraft at Mercury. The mission comprises ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (foreground) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (background).
The image of Mercury was taken by NASA’s Messenger spacecraft.
Credits: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

According to a ESA statement, a unique aspect of the BepiColombo mission is its dual spacecraft nature. The ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, Mio, will be delivered into complementary orbits around the planet by a third module, ESA’s Mercury Transfer Module, in 2025.

Monitoring cameras

For this upcoming flyby, BepiColombo’s three monitoring cameras will be taking black-and-white photos.

ESA explains that the first images will be downlinked within a couple of hours after closest approach; the first is expected to be available for public release during the afternoon of June 23.

Subsequent images will be downlinked throughout the remainder of the day and a second image release, comprising multiple new images, is expected by Friday morning. All images are scheduled to be released to the public in the Planetary Science Archive on Monday June 27.

The joint European-Japanese BepiColombo mission captured this view of Mercury on October 1, 2021 as the spacecraft flew past the planet for a gravity assist maneuvere.
Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Geological features

“For the closest images it should be possible to identify large impact craters and other prominent geological features linked to tectonic and volcanic activity such as scarps, wrinkle ridges and lava plains on the planet’s surface,” explains ESA.

“Mercury’s heavily cratered surface records a 4.6 billion year history of asteroid and comet bombardment, which together with unique tectonic and volcanic curiosities will help scientists unlock the secrets of the planet’s place in Solar System evolution,” the ESA statement adds.


The Jezero Crater delta, a well-preserved ancient river delta on Mars. New research suggests sedimentary rocks made of compacted mud or clay, like those found in the Jezero Crater delta, are the most likely to contain microbial fossils.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is busy at work exploring Jezero Crater.

“From orbit, this crater shows all the promising signs of a place that was likely friendly to life in the distant past,” explains a JPL website dedicated to the mission.

“The rover’s goal is to study the site in detail for its past conditions and seek the very signs of past life. Its mission is to identify and collect the most compelling rock core and soil samples, which a future mission could retrieve and bring back to Earth for more detailed study,” adds the website.

Signs of ancient life on Mars could be preserved in layered rocks like those shown in this illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Indeed, imagery being taken by the rover is first-rate – but are we close to detecting past life on the Red Planet?

Compelling evidence

“The best case scenario for Perseverance finding compelling evidence of past life is the identification of biomediated structures that can be observed with cameras,” said Steve Ruff, a leading planetary geologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image on June 17, 2022 of the area in front of it using its onboard Front Left Hazard Avoidance Camera A.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ruff said that features like stromatolites, which occur at scales of millimeters to meters in size are candidates. 

“They form in standing water where microbial mats are mineralized, building up layers of biology and geology that can be preserved for billions of years, like found in ancient rocks on Earth,” Ruff told Inside Outer Space.

Huge win

If something like that were found by Perseverance and then sampled, this would be a huge win for the mission, Ruff said. “The sample would still need to be subjected to a battery of measurements in labs on Earth to really prove that microbes played a role.”

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image on June 10, 2022 using its onboard Right Navigation Camera (Navcam) located high on the rover’s mast and aids in driving.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In terms of that material rocketed back to our planet, the risk to Earth is nil, Ruff said. “The ‘bugs’ that contributed to a stromatolite would have been dead for billions of years, since the time there was a lake in Jezero, which is when such structures could have formed. Long dead microbes from Mars, at best, are now just degraded organic matter, probably the equivalent of tar-like compounds. So zero risk of infecting Earth.”

Scientific triumph

The still-in-work Mars Sample Return mission was envisioned to go after a scenario like this, said Ruff, “finding evidence of long dead Martian microbes in samples returned to Earth,” he said.

Bottom line: “This scenario would be a scientific triumph and change our understanding about the potential for life beyond Earth,” Ruff said. “A second data point would be confirmed.”

To support the campaign to return samples from Mars, multiple robots team up to ferry to Earth select samples that are now being gathered by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

Long-sought mission

NASA is pressing ahead on the agency’s long-sought vision of rocketing back to Earth pieces of Mars. A Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign is now being orchestrated by NASA and the European Space Agency, a multi-spacecraft enterprise.

This fast-paced, multi-billion dollar endeavor is dedicated to hauling back planetary particulars from the Red Planet to our world in the early 2030’s.

Christopher Carr, an assistant professor within Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences once worked on Mars Sample Return at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the summers of 1999 and 2000.

“My first reaction after reading a stack of slide presentations was, you’ve got to be kidding, this is so complicated,” said Carr. “It turns out the complexity was and is highly driven by the requirement to have a low probability of releasing even a very small particle of Mars material into the Earth biosphere.”

Departure of Mars Ascent Vehicle carrying Mars samples.
Credit: NASA

Carr added that even back then the technology existed to provide simultaneous protection of precious samples and protection against release of Mars particles using the right series of isolators with differential pressures. 

“This is the kind of approach used, for example, in pharmaceutical manufacturing. It is not cheap and will require a specialized facility and specific work practices,” Carr said. This planetary protection burden he views as reasonable for legal, ethical, and moral reasons until we learn more about the risks, he advises.

Ultimately, Carr suspects such extreme measures will be unnecessary, in part because the surface of Mars today is uninhabitable to life as we know it. To date, he knows of no overlap between conditions required for replication and conditions present on the surface of Mars.

Uncontrolled mass experiment

“In contrast,” Carr continues, “there is a large overlap in the temperatures and pressures in the subsurface of Mars and the range of inhabited environments on Earth,” Carr said. “Earth also continues to receive Mars meteoritic material, although most of this arrives in the form of small particles that have been in space long enough to be sterilized.”

Mars: Home for past, perhaps present-day life? Credit: NASA

Carr tags the COVID-19 pandemic and variants as “an uncontrolled mass experiment in evolution” with a virus known to be hazardous to many and deadly to some. “In that context, the back contamination [from Mars] issue can almost seem like an academic exercise, and yet we do owe it to all humans to take reasonable precautions,” he said.

Safeguard our planet

Similar in view is astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch from the Technical University Berlin and the School of the Environment at Washington State University.

In his opinion, the danger from any microbes on Mars should be extremely small, “because there are naturally meteorites landing from Mars on Earth, and this has been going on for eons,” Schulze-Makuch notes.

“On the other hand,” Schulze-Makuch says, “Earth is our only biosphere and life line, so we have to do everything we can to safeguard our planet and its biosphere from any, even very small, risk,”

To ensure this, the construction of a specially designed Sample Receiving Facility on Earth to receive samples from Mars, Schulze-Makuch concludes, “should have already begun or at least start now right away.”

Curiosity’s location as of Sol 3506. Distance driven by this sol: 17.48 miles/28.14 kilometers.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 3507duties.

“The difficulty of driving on Martian terrain proves itself once again,” reports Natalie Moore, a mission operations specialist, at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, California.

Curiosity’s Sol 3504 drive did not complete successfully, leaving the robot in basically the same spot as an earlier plan.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“Thankfully, all the science we planned executed successfully,” Moore adds. There was an interesting Dust Removal Tool result on “Omai” showing erosion-resistant veins beneath the surface and a Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) closeup of the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) eye where the laser comes out.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More science

While resolute rover planners worked on scripting a drive to get the rover further down the road, there was agreement to fill up a new plan with even more science and instrument calibration activities.

“For geology-based science, ChemCam’s Sol 3503 laser target ‘Mahdia’ was so interesting they decided to shoot the same area again but this time have Mastcam take a suite of images in 7 color filters to document the area in various light wavelengths,” Moore explains.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

ChemCam is slated to shoot its laser on a thin plate of rock sticking out just above the Mahdia target area, named “Iwokrama” after a rain forest in central Guyana.

“While Mastcam is documenting ChemCam’s efforts in color,” Moore explains, “it will also be taking a stereo 2×2 mosaic of nearby sand ripples, named ‘Poci’ after the small town in Venezuela, which may help characterize Martian aeolian processes over time.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Atmospheric composition

For contact science with the arm, the team decided on a single MAHLI imaging activity on a layered rock named “Tipuru” after the village in Guyana. Due to the depth of Tipuru’s layers, MAHLI will be taking images at 8 focus positions and stacking them into a single image with best focus.

For environmental science, ChemCam is on tap to collect data passively while pointed at the sky for atmospheric composition characterization.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mastcam is slated to take images of the Sun with its solar filter for atmospheric opacity measurements.

Navcam is planning an image of crater rim for atmospheric opacity and a movie of the terrain to hopefully capture Martian dust devils.

Instrument calibration

The environmental team is also planning their normal Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) activities for regular measurements of the rover’s spot in Gale Crater.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There’s an opportunity to obtain plenty of instrument calibration and documentation activities logged.

Mastcam is planning two identical runs of images through the solar filter while not pointing at the Sun, which will return black images showing the state of the Mastcam charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to see how they’re holding up after nearly 10 years on Mars.

MAHLI is planning an image of the REMS ultraviolet sensor to show how much dust has accumulated and 4 images of the sky to use for processing MAHLI images after they arrive on Earth.

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite has an electrical-baseline test (EBT) and the Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) has an empty cell analysis activity planned for continued instrument calibration, Moore reports.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 3506, June 17, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Drive ahead

After the rover makes a drive of roughly 72-feet (22-meters), Mastcam is to take images of the Mars machinery’s new location.

Lastly, also in the planning is taking a single Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) image of the ground including part of the left-front wheel after sunset to get diffuse illumination of the dusty ground below.



“As of this plan,” Moore concludes, “we’ve driven 28 and 1/8th kilometers since landing!”

Credit: Xidian University

Codenamed Zhuri — or “chasing the Sun” – a research team with Xidian University is working on components of a space-based solar power station (SSPS).

A “ground recipient verification system” has been constructed to enable next-generation microwave power wireless transmission technology and space-based solar power plant technology.

The ground verification system is located in the southern campus of Xidian University. The supportive tower of the system is an over 245-feet (75 meters) high steel structure, and has five subsystems: Omega concentration and light-electricity conversion, power transmission and management, and a receiving antenna, reports China’s, the official English-language website of China News Service (CNS).

Peter Glaser, the father of the solar power satellite concept.
Credit: Arthur D. Little Inc.

Space testing

The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) plans to conduct a “Space high voltage transfer and wireless power transmission experiment” in low Earth orbit in 2028.

The OMEGA space-based solar power station reportedly will be capable of generating 10 kilowatts and carry a solar cell array, microwave transmitting antenna, a low power laser transmission payload, and a transmitting array to evaluate power transmission across distances of 400 kilometers from orbit, adds the story.

To read the full story – “China prepares ground recipient system for space-based solar power station” – go to:

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 3504, June 15, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 3504 duties.

Back on Sol 3496 the rover plan did not execute due to an issue onboard the rover that took a few days to investigate, reports Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Curiosity returned to normal operations, and researchers were able to accomplish everything that was in the Sol 3496 plan…and more.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo acquired on Sol 3504, June 15, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“More was possible because we had slightly different communication windows between Curiosity and Earth in this plan than in the Sol 3496 plan. This meant we could wait to drive to our next location on the second sol of this two sol plan giving us more time in this workspace,” Minitti adds.

Dust Removal Tool action as seen by Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Photo produced on Sol 3503, June 14, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Cool evening temperatures

First and foremost, added was use of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) because it could run in the cool evening temperatures of Sol 3503.

“We selected a nice smooth patch of bedrock,” Minitti notes, the target “Omai,” then brushed it with the Dust Removal Tool before imaging it with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and analyzing it with APXS.

MAHLI will reattempt a small mosaic across the prominent resistant veins in this area at the target “Wandapa,” and will image the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam’s) “eye” to monitor the state of that part of the instrument.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 3503, June 14, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Relationship to bedrock

“Another sol to plan meant we could add another ChemCam raster, as well. In addition to ‘Mahdia,’ the previously-selected bedrock target, we added ‘Murupu,’ a smoother material visible on the upper surface of the rock. This smoother material might be one of the veins that cut through the rocks here, so getting chemistry on it would be helpful to understand its relationship to the bedrock,” Minitti explains.

ChemCam replanned their long distance Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) mosaic of one of the features along the upper portion of “Gediz Vallis Ridge.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 3504, June 15, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Mastcam had a mix of previously-planned and new observations,” Minitti points out. “The former included three stereo mosaics, two of which covered the dramatic stratigraphy and layering in this area at targets ‘Serra Mara’ and ‘Eboropu.’ The third covered a smaller, but still interesting, area of sand motion near the rover at target ‘Karto.’”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 3504, June 15, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Clear sailing?

“New observations included two stereo mosaics that stretched from our workspace to our drive target to help scout the path ahead and provide context for where we are headed,” Minitti reports. “Mastcam will also observe the brushed surface at Omai with its multispectral capabilities.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 3503, June 14, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) are to be back at it at their usual cadence.

Navcam is slated to acquire a dust devil movie, cloud movie, and an image to monitor the amount of dust in the atmosphere.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 3503, June 14, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS




“Hopefully Navcam sees clear sailing up ahead for Curiosity,” Minitti concludes, “after our break in the action!”

Credit: New China TV/XinhuaVideo/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Making the rounds on Twitter and various news feeds is that China may have picked up signals from alien civilizations.

China’s “Sky Eye” — better known as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) radio telescope — is located in southwestern Guizhou province.

In one report, posted by the state-backed Science and Technology Daily (story now removed from the site) cites Zhang Tonjie, chief scientist of an extraterrestrial civilization search team co-founded by Beijing Normal University, the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Berkeley.

Credit: GLOBALink/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Zhang is reported to have said that the team detected two sets of signals in 2020 while sifting through data gathered in 2019. Another signal was picked up this year amidst observation data of exoplanet targets.

However, Zhang reportedly also underscored the prospect that the signals are products of radio interference. As follow-up, repeat observations are reportedly on tap.

Radio pollution

Meanwhile, Inside Outer Space reached out to Dan Werthimer, the Marilyn and Watson Alberts SETI Chair in the Astronomy Department and Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. He works with the Beijing Normal University SETI researchers.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is an international, collaborative affair. SETI scientist Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley, co-authored a recent paper on China’s SETI program with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST). He is shown here with other FAST SETI collaborators. Credit: Dan Werthimer

These signals are from radio interference; they are due to radio pollution from earthlings, not from ET. The technical term we use is “RFI” – radio frequency interference. RFI can come from cell phones, TV transmitters, radar, satellites, as well as electronics and computers near the observatory that produce weak radio transmissions,” Werthimer said.

“All of the signals detected by SETI researchers so far are made by our own civilization, not another civilization,” Werthimer added. “It’s getting hard to do SETI observations from the surface of our planet. Radio pollution is getting worse, as more and more transmitters and satellites are built. Some radio bands have become impossible to use for SETI.”

Credit: Breakthrough Listen/Danielle Futselaar


Werthimer said that earthlings might eventually have to go to the backside of the Moon to do SETI. “A radio telescope on the backside of the Moon would be shielded from all of our planet’s radio pollution.”

For more information on China’s SETI plans, go to:

China Radio Telescope Embarks on ET Search

Also, go to:

Ready, SETI, go: Is there a race to contact E.T.?

Credit: NPO Lavochkin

There is progress to report on Russia’s reactivation of Moon exploration.

NPO Lavochkin continues the work on the country’s Luna-25 lunar lander.

On the night of June 13-14, the flight product of the Luna-25 spacecraft was transported from the territory of the enterprise to the branch testing center of the State Corporation (Peresvet, Moscow Region) for conducting complex electrical tests in a vacuum chamber.

Credit: NPO Lavochkin

“These tests are carried out in order to check the functioning of the flight model of the spacecraft in conditions as close as possible to the real conditions of its operation (space vacuum, low and high temperature loads),” NPO Lavochkin reports.

After completion of testing, the spacecraft will be returned to NPO Lavochkin for further work.

Topographic map of the southern sub-polar region of the Moon showing the location of Boguslawsky crater.
Credit: Ivanov et al., 2015 via Arizona State University/LROC

Circumpolar region

“The Luna-25 spacecraft is being created using the latest achievements in the field of space instrumentation. The main task of the mission is to develop basic soft landing technologies, as well as to conduct research in the little-studied circumpolar region of the Moon,” NPO Lavochkin adds.

“The return to the Moon is due to the discovery of ice deposits at the poles, which opens up new opportunities for supporting lunar missions,” the spacecraft production group notes.

Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Launch slips

The Russian robotic Moon lander has repeatedly slipped from last year to May, then August, and may be ready for launch this September.

In addition, Luna-25 became another space causality of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. The European Space Agency pulled the plug on working with Russia on this mission, and also other Luna-series projects.

Russia’s Luna-25 will test lunar sampling skills.
Credit: NPO Lavochkin/IKI/Roscosmos


Once off the ground and Moon-bound, Luna-25 is slated to touch down north of the Boguslavsky crater. A “reserve area” for the landing craft is southwest of the Manzini crater.

This Russian Moon mission continues the series of the former Soviet Union’s lunar exploration activities that ended back in 1976. Luna-24 successfully delivered about 170 grams of lunar soil to Earth.

The Luna-25 mission will be followed by the Luna-26 orbiter and the Luna-27 landing vehicle, after which it is planned to start deploying a full-fledged scientific station on the Moon in collaboration with China.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require SpaceX to take more than 75 actions to mitigate environmental impacts from its proposed plan to launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas.
Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX


The actions are part of the agency’s environmental review. The environmental review must be completed along with public safety, national security, and other analyses before a decision on whether to grant a launch license can be made.

The license application is still pending. 


The environmental review is one part of the FAA Launch Operator License application process.

Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX

Impacts to fish, wildlife and plants

SpaceX also must meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements before a license is issued for any launch activities. The review was completed in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and all applicable laws, regulations, and agency guidance.

As noted today by the FAA, additional measures to address impacts to fish, wildlife and plants, and resources protected by the National Historic Preservation Act will be required.

Some examples of these measures include:

  • Ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist;
  • Ensuring notification of surrounding communities in advance about potential engine noise and sonic booms from launches;
  • Coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats;
  • Adjusting lighting at the launch complex to minimize impact on wildlife and the nearby beach.

The required actions are part of the FAA’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment, Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), and Record of Decision (ROD). The documents are available at:

Credit: CORDS/The Aerospace Corporation


What is the overall impact of the tons of human-made orbital debris, solid and liquid propellant discharges, and other space age substances that reenter the Earth’s atmosphere?

There’s a toss away line in use over the years – indeed, today — that spacecraft refuse “burns up” – but that is far from accurate. The chemistry from high heating of spacecraft materials – including beryllium, aluminum, etc. – is worthy of investigation, specifically the impact of these materials on the atmosphere – top to bottom.

What are the consequences from human-made materials reentering Earth’s fragile atmospheric cocoon?

New research

New research into this area has been done by Laura Ratliff of The Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

Last month, her paper — “Space Debris Reentry: Inadvertent Geoengineering?” – won the Thacher Prize for Outstanding Publication in Space Policy.

Density of Human-made Objects by Altitude. From Pardini and Anselmo (2021) used in Laura Ratliff paper

“The potential atmospheric effects of satellite hardware reentering from low Earth orbit (LEO) megaconstellations have been largely unstudied to date,” the paper explains. “While researchers have raised concerns about the potential for megaconstellations to pollute LEO, they have largely accepted deorbiting of dead satellites without considering the potential atmospheric pollution from routine burning of various carbon compounds and aerosolization of metal components.”

Host of different materials

As Ratliff points out spacecraft contain a host of different materials that could have varied effects on the atmosphere:

  • Aluminum: Commonly used for structural elements and radiation/impact shielding. It accounts for a large percent of the total mass for structures in which it is used.
  • Carbon Composites: Either carbon fibers or woven fabric are combined with an epoxy to generate a rigid material which can be used for structural elements in combination with, or replacing, aluminum. Carbon fibers are also used in the construction of propellant tanks.
  • Titanium: Useful for propellant tanks and engine components due to its high strength-to-weight ratio. Its thermal resistance and stability also make it useful for optical instruments, where it can thermally isolate cold detectors, and for casings and other supporting structures.
  • Steel: A combination of iron and carbon, it is the most common material for fasteners (screws) and reaction wheels.
  • Ceramics: Used in solar cells and thermal protection, can be a combination of silicon and other materials.
  • Copper: Most commonly used in wiring.

Paucity of data

“The paucity of data available to quantify the effects of debris reentry make it challenging to establish whether there is any current or future danger of significant atmospheric damage,” Ratliff notes in the paper. “Yet, the technical basis upon which estimates of harm rest does suggest there may be cause for concern as reentry rates increase.”

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Ratliff tells Inside Outer Space: “Starting to characterize the unknowns in the climate system and commercial satellite industry was a daunting task because the gaps in our knowledge are so great and many of the missing pieces interrelate in complex ways.”

With so many unknowns, Ratliff adds, “building an accurate model to predict future climate effects would be quite an undertaking, but doing so might be important to prevent us from committing to satellite disposal practices which we’ll later regret.”

This topic seems ripe for further study by an interdisciplinary group including atmospheric scientists, materials scientists, thermodynamicists, and engineers, Ratliff suggests to Inside Outer Space.

Logical first step

“Cries of “More Research!” can often be heard when policymakers don’t want to act on an issue, but this classic non-solution is actually fairly useful for the issue at hand,” Ratliff says in the paper. “With many fundamental pieces of knowledge unknown and yet knowable, building up a better understanding of the potential inputs into the atmosphere and their interaction within current global climate models would provide a much more solid foundation upon which future policy could be built.”

Credit: NASA

Given the current levels of uncertainty across the board, Ratliff concludes, investing in focused research on the interaction of spacecraft-based aerosols with the atmosphere is the most logical first step.

“This can inform next steps, such as reducing the mass entering the atmosphere, changing the materials used, or mitigating post-aerosolization. While we do not know whether these actions will become necessary in the next decade, next century, or ever, taking steps now to assess the situation in more detail and develop a proactive plan will likely benefit policymakers, citizens, and the environment,” Ratliff suggests in the paper.

To read the winning research paper — “Space Debris Reentry: Inadvertent Geoengineering?” – go to: